Olivier Boujol - Vice President & Global Head Structured Trade Finance at ADM

Finance & Accountancy
23 February, 2023

Olivier Boujol is the Vice President & Global Head Structured Trade Finance at ADM in Switzerland. He started his career in the banking sector, before becoming International CFO at Viterra and CFO at Libero. He set up the Structured Trade Finance function for ADM, a Fortune 50 company, where he is Managing Director & Vice President - Structured Trade Finance.

How important is the trait of entrepreneurialism and a senior executive in a corporate environment?

I think it is really fundamental. Ownership and accountability does matter, at the end of the day - you have a strategy, you have a plan of action, you need to lead towards the direction that is being given by the corporation and then just scale it down to the organisation. So, I think the expectation here is that senior people lead their own individual area with an entrepreneur mindset.

An entrepreneurial mindset is at the epicentre of everything we do; from designing new solutions, designing new structures, interacting with third parties, negotiating contracts and doing transactions. I think that's an expectation, not only something that is a nice to have, but an expectation of senior executives that they act independently while in coordination with their organisation. Taking initiative, accountability, ownership is very important.

For somebody that is setting up a divisional group or function in an organisation, I would say it depends on whether you've been in the organisation for a long time or if you're new. I think it's about ensuring you know who the key stakeholders are - that is who you are serving beyond the organisation. Is that the C level? Is that the executive committee? Is that the board? Quite frequently, it's a combination of everything. Understanding all the stakeholders is always very important and getting help - you never succeed alone.

The identification of individuals that are willing to help you is important beyond the team you’re leading or have constituted, but always remember that with help comes time, energy and lost opportunities, that means your concerns are not necessarily the concerns of others, and aligning individuals and coordinating requires the ability to speak about your objectives, defining ultimate goals and purpose. The narrative is important and it has to be seductive somehow.

When you start with a blank page and a pen, you need to know how to set up the house, as I like to call it. That is processes, procedures, SOPs, your “go-to market strategy”. Also, nothing happens without a good group of people. Whether you need to go externally to hire or you inherit a team, it's about bringing people together with different strengths, backgrounds, and ensuring you have sufficient diversity. The more diverse your team is, the better. Starting with language skills - when you want to go international, having people that speak different languages is a plus. Having people with a different mindset and different expertise clearly is something that you need to have to coordinate action. This “business diversity” goes further than gender or ethnic origins.

It's a lot of effort when you set up something to make sure that people are working towards a common goal and understand the strategy and, eventually, you get together nicely. Have regular calls, regular meetings, regular catch-ups etc., and have these with a purpose. This is alignment and coordination, nothing comes automatically and remember that every individual has his own understanding and goes at his own pace, this is something you need to be aware of and respect, also to develop people, as a Chinese philosopher said, the journey is as important as the ultimate objective.

What was the best or worst interview experience you've had?

I think I have had some good ones and bad ones. In general, when you come to an interview, you need to come prepared. With social networks and all the electronic tools we have at our disposal, you should be able to obtain a fairly good overview of the company. What's the strategy? What are the key features of an organisation? Know the person you're talking to and their background, and be curious.

Sometimes in interviews I see this lack of preparation; they don't really know the company, they didn't really know you, they don't really know the business. They may not ask a lot of questions. They tend to talk about a few successes that they’ve have, but I think what is important is to show interest and establish a dialogue. It shouldn't be robotic; it should be really more of a conversation and - at least - what you're going to bring to the company. Your hard skills, your soft skills, your expertise, your ability to accomplish, and I think that's what needs to be demonstrated, in coordination with the company requirements or the company strategy.

I think that the best ones are when they come well prepared and somewhat a little bit relaxed about the interview. Where it becomes a conversation, not, “What are your hard skills?” or “What do you want to become in five years?” Those are not the questions I ask. I'm more interviewing people about typically what we just discussed, more the entrepreneurial mindset and the sense of ownership and accountability. Also, the way people work together and trying to identify whether they are a loner or whether they like to work in groups or teams. I think, these days, you need people that can interact, especially on the commercial front in the world. The questions I like to ask are around context, action and results (“CAR”), that is for the candidate to explain various situations they’ve been in and what they’ve undertaken to achieve the objectives.

The recommendation here is that we’re in a world which we need to design. If you want to compete, you need to be able to demonstrate that you can build on ideas and in coordination with people. In an interview, that’s what the best candidate should try to demonstrate. The worst interviews are the ones where they don’t relate to the role to fulfil  and they have a poor understanding of the company and the stakeholders – essentially, they come unprepared.

Without shooting for perfection, whether you like the person or the style of the individual, make sure that the skills are there. It is the same logic when you manage a team, it is nice to like people but they also have to be competent. One tip I have is to make sure the individual in an interview can give you a few examples of situations they were in, the action that had been taken and the outcome they obtained. If people can articulate a few examples, it shows they have been accomplishing a few things. I think it is important to rehearse and prepare, take a deep breath, be natural and don’t be robotic.

What changes have you seen in the employment market in Switzerland over the years and what in your opinion have been the drivers for those changes?

Honestly, it's going to be more about an interpretation, on my part. I think that the Swiss market in the last ten to 15 years has become much more diverse than it used to be, especially large centres like Geneva, Zurich and all the cities.

I think that the market is more competitive and a lot of people want to come to Switzerland, not only because it's beautiful, but because I think that Switzerland has a lot of a different and vibrant ecosystems, such as commodity trading and trade finance. It also has high-end industries (pharma, micro mechanic, biotech), and obviously very good universities that are teaming up with industries preparing the students optimally to enter the work force (EPFL, HECs and also professional schools).

I think that the market has become, in general, much more sophisticated. We're asking for many more things from the people we hire and that's what I keep saying to the youngsters. You have to think design, you can't think about execution or production. The old labour is gone and it is not about “working hard” but “working smart”, that is bringing a constant steady stream of offers that are valuable and turn ideas into opportunities.

The value added of any individual that is being brought in, especially in large companies, is about their ability to design, to think creatively, to “read” the world that is experiencing constant geopolitical change and macro changes. The ability to coordinate actions, get organized, manage timelines, etc is also critical.

With all that though, I think people should not be afraid - it is much more interesting for the new generations, more multidimensional and probably more rewarding.

What risks have you taken throughout your career and how did they help you get to the level you're at now?

I started my career as a traditional banker at UBS after an apprenticeship. I probably could have stayed there forever, but I was much more inclined to develop within a truly international industrial and supply chain related group. I moved at an early stage to Cargill and have been in the commodity trade environment for the past 25 years in various large companies, but also SMEs. I think that I will always remember one head-hunter telling me: “Who takes no risk, takes all risk”, and I kept that in mind when I had different roles, changed location or changed function and departments.

Eventually, I left Cargill on a promotion when I was 39. I accepted a new offer in a smaller Canadian company which was much more entrepreneurial. I think that has paid off.

Suddenly, you leave the golden cage, if you like, and you try something new and it's not easy, because you're totally outside of your comfort zone, but that's actually a good thing.

People shouldn't be afraid; if they want a career and want to be more impactful, they need to change. People need to take risks and the worst thing you can do these days is being institutionalised. Don't be institutionalised. Don't stay there because you're afraid of moving. Be up to the challenge.

I think the recommendation I would give is accumulate experiences and expertise and take risks. If you want to be valuable in a market that is a lot more demanding than it was many years ago, it is about developing a large panel skills and interpretations- and you mostly enlarge your skills set when you leave your comfort zone and enter in a “building mode” versus “stand still".

Career advice: What's the secret to building a strong network?

I feel that it's really about being out there and meet people whether in direct meetings or various conferences/seminar. It is also reaching out randomly to maintain your relationships. Don't be a loner and be interested in people, they help you read the world and shape your thinking.

There was a good book that I read a few years ago that says never eat alone - I think that’s an expression, more so – but it means, don't be on the side. Bring your colleague, reach out to a third party, be involved and participate. I think that’s how you build your network all the time and present the good things that you've accomplished.

Don't be afraid of putting yourself out there. Whether internally or when you have the chances of presenting something externally, just do it. People will get to know you.

I would say, with social networks or on LinkedIn, be active without being overly active. It's also a matter of credibility. Just make sure that you publish things that makes sense. Don't be afraid of responding to certain publications - I think that's how you get known and eventually your network will go up with time.

In the past ten to 15 years, we have seen networking brought up, also in business schools, and the thought that you never succeed alone. The bigger your network, the more chances you have to come together, bring an offer, bring a design and grow the business you’ve been assigned to and also your reputation - especially when you have a commercial function.

Who did you most admire when you were a child and why?

A few people I've admired, I'm not sure if it was since I was a child, but early on. I admire people that have very strong values, ethics and morale, demonstrate outstanding leadership skills, are truly competent, they don’t pretend or practice “games of power”, so I do admire people that are straightforward, are loyal, honest, and that don’t practice nepotism. Generally, that is usually the type of values that I admire.

I have somebody in mind that you know - one of your fellow citizens - which is Winston Churchill. I'm a huge fan of Churchill; I've been to his museum four or five times in London. That's a true hero. People that have been navigating against the current and accomplished a lot and somewhat improved the world. If I had to mention one individual, that would be him, but there are others I admire too, Bill Gates would be another one.

Thank you to Olivier for speaking to John Bower, Director in our Finance & Accountancy recruitment team in Switzerland.

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment